What to know about terpenes
The holidays are an excellent excuse to flex your hosting muscles and impress friends and family with your Martha Stewart-like abilities. And while expectations in the age of Instagram and Pinterest can be high, so too can your guests. Cannabis and its derivatives have infiltrated all courses of the dinner menu, as well as pre- and post-nosh.
Most recently, cannabis-inspired cocktails have been touted as a delightful way to incorporate the buzziness of the plant into your menu without imposing a buzz onto your guests. While CBD-laced beverages made a splash earlier this year, particularly in California, mixologists are now experimenting with another lesser-known ingredient sourced from cannabis: terpenes.
“Terpenes are biological hydrocarbons that are ubiquitous throughout the natural world,” says Brad Douglass, director of advanced botanical strategy at The Werc Shop, a consulting agency that supports the research of independent cannabis laboratories. “They’re produced by many, many plants. In fact, almost all — if not all — terpenes found in cannabis are also found in some other botanical. I am not aware of any terpene that is unique to cannabis.”
If you feel like you need a degree in biology to get this, you’re not alone. To break it down, terpenes are basically a plant’s aroma molecules, and what provide the unique scent profiles of plants like pine or lavender. They evolved in plants to help protect them from predators and attract pollinators (very cool!). Health-wise, they’re what help provide the benefits of aromatherapy when incorporated in essential oils, and many terpenes also boost anti-inflammatory properties, particularly those found in cannabis.
So why mix these botanical extracts in your cocktails? “They’ll mostly be used to add flavour and aroma,” says Douglass. Essentially, it’s all about the powerful nose-brain connection, which is stronger than any of the other senses, and explains why scent is so closely linked to memories and nearly always very subjective. If you’re one who savours the warm, headiness of rolling a joint, the right terpene could replicate that sensation in beverage form. Health-wise, there are no studies that prove you’ll get any benefits from mixing terpenes with your booze. “It’s possible that terpenes could have a salubrious effect, but there is not any clear evidence of positive or negative effects in the presence of alcohol,” says Douglass.
Kristen Voisey is the owner of Toronto’s BYOB Cocktail Emporium, which stocks everything cocktail-related, from bitters and syrups to vintage barware. She predicts the cocktail scene will soon be turning to cannabis and its terpenes as an ingredient of choice. “There are limitless opportunities when it comes to creating certain flavour profiles,” she says, adding that terpenes are an all-natural, sugar-free plant-based flavouring — an ideal combo for any cannabis or cocktail connoisseur. “For example, people will be able to get their favourite strain of bud incorporated into their favourite spirit. Eventually we might even sell our own terpene extracts as cocktail ingredients at our stores.”
Just as there are many different strains of cannabis, so too are there different types of cannabis-sourced terpenes. Some offer more of an earthy or musky profile, while others are citrusy or even hoppy like your favourite craft beer. Given their often warm flavouring, Voisey says terpenes are a natural fit for holiday cocktails. “A lot of them have notes of pine, musk, cloves, wood, spice, many flavours we associate with holiday beverages like mulled wine and eggnog,” she says, suggesting incorporating pinene (pine and conifer) and limonene (citrus, peppermint and juniper) to gin-based cocktails. “I could see caryophyllene with its peppery, woody, spicy notes going great with darker spirits like whisky based cocktails or hot toddys. Myrcene — musk, clove, citrus, lemongrass — could be great in rum type cocktails such as eggnog.”
Following Voisey’s advice, it’s simply a matter of choosing a terpene type that speaks to you and developing your own cocktail recipe. If the stress of party planning is getting to you, your choice of terpene could even help bring you and your guests some much-needed relaxation, kind of like taking a lavender bath before bed. “The soothing effects of the deep complex aroma make them a perfect holiday cocktail ingredient,” says Voisy. And if you sample a little too many of your new recipe, fear not. Voisey is also looking into developing terpene-laced hangover cures.
Story by Caitlin Agnew